Stop the War [report]

“Not enough water in the river Jordan”

On Saturday, 5,000 protesters assembled at Trafalgar Square in London to call for an immediate withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan. A modest number of people, but with a strong message. And that message grew stronger as the day passed. A report from within the crowd… 

By Laurens Cerulus

As protesters made their way up to Trafalgar Square around noon, the surrounding streets were still stuck in their daily routine. The souvenir stands presented their miniature flags and souvenir hats as always, proudly decorated with the Union Jack or the British colours. But the protesters on Trafalgar Square had something else in mind. They were determined to question the UK’s national pride on this particular day – the day after the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.

Criticising the British military involvement in Afghanistan, the Stop the War-coalition organised a day of protest. The message was clear, and painted on the signs carried around: “Cut war, not welfare” or “Afgha-NO-stan”. The speakers, organisation and protesters repeatedly pressed for an end to the war that costs British society a vast amount of lives, money and international political credit. A clear stance against the ruling powers in the country.

The turnout at 1pm, however, was less overwhelming. Amongst the approximately 2,500 protesters, many tourists popped up. “We’re just passing by”, two Irish girls admitted, while having a coffee break on the stairs in front of the National Gallery. A group of Italian tourists manoeuvred through the crowd, following a guide that held another Union Jack decorated umbrella up high.

“We’re happy with the turnout”, Josh Fairclough of the Stop the War Coalition stressed. “The Afghan war is an absolute priority at this moment. Up to seventy-four percent of the population in the UK opposes it. We still expect more people to come today, and to join us in the march towards Downing 10 later on.”

As the organisation got their prominent speakers on stage, the protesters gradually grew in numbers. A sense of unity grasped the crowd, cheered on by ever more impassioned speeches. Journalist and documentary maker John Pilger cried out that “there is only one way to end the war, and that is civil disobedience.” Writer and human rights campaigner Jemima Khan criticized politicians claiming that British soldiers did not die in vain in Afghanistan: “Isn’t the painful truth that they did?” The crowd, which grew to an estimated 5,000 people, responded with outcries of approval.

Enter Julian Assange. The long-awaited crowd-puller received a welcoming applause, outdoing what other speakers were granted before. In his speech – somewhat subdued in comparison to the others – he took a strong stance on the media’s support for the War on Terror: “Who are the war criminals? It’s not just leaders, it’s not just soldiers. Journalists are war criminals”. As Assange left the stage, the assembled media encircled him in order to get the closest shot or the snappiest quote.

Former Labour MP George Galloway brought the square to its boiling point. In a punch line spoken earlier by British campaigner and journalist Andrew Murray, he pointed the finger at former prime minister Tony Blair, fulminating that “there is not enough water running through the river Jordan to wash the blood of your hands!” It had an impact on every single person on the square.

As the thousands of protesters marched towards Downing Street 10 at 4pm, chants and slogans took over. However, “there were not enough protesters, people don’t seem to care”, protester Laura (48) expressed her disappointment. Student and protester Dev (32) confirmed that “the speeches were brilliant and the crowd was very diverse. But we need numbers, and we need people on the streets.”

The crowd gathered at the gates of Downing Street and shouted in unison: “What do we want? Troops out! When do we want it? Now!” Attempts by police to drive the masses away from Downing Street after half an hour resulted in loud vocal protest and outcries of “shame”. Some five hundred protesters withstood the police’s disturbance, as the majority gradually got on their way home.

It is yet to be decided if the 5,000 people who assembled yesterday will make the difference they aspire to. As one of the protesters expressed, “for politicians, bearing these manifestations is like having an itch.” As activists and supporters returned home, the fountains on Trafalgar Square were switched back on. The usual suspects of tourists and passers-by soon turned up again, posing for pictures in front of Nelson’s Column.

* * *

(Photography by the fantastic Brian Leli, who I owe a lot of gratitude! Be sure to check out his amazing project, called ‘London and a Year’. Stunning!)

(Credits: Brian Leli 2011 – London and a Year)

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About laurenscerulus

AKA reporter for Deutsche Welle, The Independent, Monocle24... AKA editor @ youropa.org FKA trainee journalist @ BBC World Service, Monocle, De Morgen, MO* FKA foreign editor @ Veto student newspaper, Belgium. FKA student of modern history @ KULeuven | international relations @ UCLouvain.

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